Lightfoot escalates war of words with former watchdog she inherited, then pushed out

The mayor criticized Joe Ferguson’s surprise decision to write a letter to senators considering the appointment of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel as U.S. ambassador to Japan emphatically stating that there is no evidence that Emanuel covered up the police shooting of Laquan McDonald.

SHARE Lightfoot escalates war of words with former watchdog she inherited, then pushed out
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and former Inspector General Joe Ferguson

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and former Inspector General Joe Ferguson

Sun-Times files

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Tuesday escalated her war of words with the inspector general she inherited and pushed out the door.

Lightfoot saved her sharpest words for Joe Ferguson’s surprise decision to write a letter to U.S. senators considering President Joe Biden’s appointment of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel as U.S. ambassador to Japan emphatically stating there was “a complete absence of factual basis to support the claim” that Emanuel “was involved directly or indirectly in a `cover-up’ “ of Laquan McDonald shooting video.

Noting that delayed or “non-disclosure” of body-worn camera videos were the city’s “longstanding policy and practice” at the time, Ferguson told senators his “comprehensive investigation” did not “reveal any evidence that would support lingering surmises and accusations of a cover-up orchestrated out of City Hall. None.”

“I thought it was pretty extraordinary. Why would an inspector general who, supposedly is independent, be vouching for anyone — particularly in that context?” Lightfoot asked aloud at an unrelated news conference.

“I thought it was, frankly, beyond the pale. ... Supposedly he wrote the letter days after the end of his tenure. But still. I just thought that was a pretty extraordinary thing for him to do because he was offering, in effect, an exoneration of the mayor’s conduct.”

Emanuel has spent years under fire for keeping the shooting video under wraps for more than a year and waiting until a week after the mayoral runoff election in April 2015 to authorize a $5 million settlement to the McDonald family before a lawsuit had been filed.

The video was released under a judge’s order on the same day Police Officer Jason Van Dyke, who is white, was charged with the first-degree murder of the Black teenager.

Unrelenting allegations of “16 shots and a cover-up” triggered demands for Emanuel’s resignation and ultimately fueled the former mayor’s decision not to seek a third term as Chicago’s mayor.

Lightfoot, a former Police Board president who co-chaired the Task Force on Police Accountability, entered the 2019 mayoral race before the mayor who appointed her to those jobs dropped out.

On Tuesday, Lightfoot said she doesn’t “have any opinion one way or the other about what the now-ambassador did or didn’t do” with the Laquan McDonald shooting video.

But, she said, “For somebody who was supposed to be independent and in a position of trust to use that platform to write that kind of letter, to me, was extraordinary.”

Ferguson could not be reached for comment.

The letter exonerating Emanuel wasn’t the only new source of friction between Lightfoot and Ferguson.

So was the former inspector general’s scathing indictment of the Lightfoot administration’s handling of the aftermath of the botched raid that forced social worker Anjanette Young to stand naked and humiliated before a dozen male Chicago police officers.

In a quarterly report released last week, Ferguson called the ugly aftermath of the raid a complete failure by the whole government led by Lori Lightfoot.

The mayor emphatically disagreed, and she accused Ferguson of failing to evaluate himself.

Lightfoot noted that, in July 2019, the former inspector general publicly declared his intention to examine all of the “so-called wrong raids.” But 18 months later, nothing happened.

“So, for the inspector general to cast a value judgment on other city departments without also talking about what it did or what it didn’t do, I think, is a huge problem and really undermines the legitimacy of the work that it did. I … unequivocally challenged them to ... supplement their report to talk about what they did. They refused to do that, which is their prerogative. But it doesn’t mean they have clean hands here.”

Ferguson is a former federal prosecutor who served with Lightfoot in the U.S. attorney’s office.

When he was appointed by former Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2009 to replace departing Inspector General David Hoffman, Lightfoot was among those who vouched for and recommended her friend Ferguson.

That close relationship initially raised questions about just how independent Ferguson would be in a Lightfoot administration. Since then, however, there has been tension behind the scenes as there almost always is between a mayor and his or her watchdog.

After Lightfoot hinted strongly that she would not reappoint Ferguson because she “favors term limits” and does not believe “people should stay in office indefinitely,’ Ferguson decided to go out on his own terms.

Ferguson told the Sun-Times last fall that he was unable to recommend disciplinary action against any city employees for mishandling the aftermath of the raid on Young’s home because a simultaneous, outside investigation requested by the mayor included interviews with 20 of those same city employees. Lightfoot’s administration then claimed attorney-client privilege to shield that information from him, Ferguson said.

At the time, he characterized the Lightfoot administration’s handling of the Anjanette Young video as a “remarkable, troubling closing of a circle.”

“It brings us back where we were five or six years ago and where her career got its jump-start. Yet the city is engaged in similar activity — and, in this instance, with respect to a living victim,” he said.

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